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Author Talk: August 6, 2010

Philippa Gregory’s second installment in The Cousins’ War series, THE RED QUEEN, centers on Lady Margaret Beaufort --- matriarch of the House of Tudor, mother to King Henry VII, and political rival of Elizabeth Woodville, the protagonist of last year’s THE WHITE QUEEN. In this interview, Gregory compares the two influential monarchs in their roles as dynastic pawns and political figures alike, and elaborates on what their positions in a male-dominated society reveal about women in the 15th century. She also reflects on Margaret’s lasting historical legacy while speculating on how her life would have differed had she been born a man, and describes one of the biggest challenges she has encountered as a writer so far.

Question: Margaret Beaufort is a very different character than Elizabeth Woodville, star of THE WHITE QUEEN. Was it difficult for you to shift perspective and write in the voice of a woman, in this case THE RED QUEEN, who is the enemy of the main character of your previous book?

Philippa Gregory: One of the most difficult things I have ever done in writing was shift my own perspective so that after three years of thinking entirely from the point of view of Elizabeth Woodville and from the point of view of the house of York, I had to convert to the view of Margaret Beaufort and the house of Lancaster. I thought at the time that the only way to do it would be to find some sort of key to the girl that Margaret was, in order to understand her as a woman. There are three extant biographies of her and I read them all and then thought that the secret to Margaret is her genuine and deep faith. That led me to the picture of this very precocious and serious little girl and once I could imagine and love her --- I could imagine the woman that her hard life and disappointments create.

Q: Margaret’s mother tells her “since you were a girl you could only be the bridge to the next generation.” (59) Do you feel sympathy for Margaret and her thwarted ambition? What would her life have been like if she were born a man?

PG: Of course I feel intense sympathy for Margaret who is used by her family, as so many women of this period were used --- as a pawn in a game of dynasties. However, to be cheerful about it --- if she had been a man she would almost certainly have been killed in a battle or in an attack --- all the other heirs on the Lancaster side were killed and she sent her son away to keep him safe. Perhaps the greatest disappointment for Margaret was that she was not allowed a religious life. There is no doubt in my mind that she would have made a wonderful abbess both as a landlord and community leader and as a scholar.

Q: Taken together, THE WHITE QUEEN and THE RED QUEEN present very different portraits of marriage in the fifteenth century. Was either woman’s experience more indicative of the time?

PG: Margaret has the more typical life of a woman of her class. Many of the noblewomen of this time were placed in arranged marriages for the advantage of their families. She was exceptionally young, but most noblewomen could expect to be married at sixteen. What is unusual about Margaret is that it seems likely that her third marriage was indeed arranged by herself, to position herself at the York court, and to give her son a stepfather of immense wealth and influence. In this she was very powerfully taking control of her own destiny, and this was unusual, even for widows.

Elizabeth Woodville’s first marriage is also very typical of the time. Her marriage was arranged when she was about sixteen to the wealthy heir of a great estate in a neighbouring county. The Grey family gained the Woodville’s connections at court and the royal and noble connections of Elizabeth’s mother, and the Woodvilles got their daughter into a wealthy house. Elizabeth’s second marriage was, of course, unique. She was the first English commoner to marry a king of England, and the first queen married for love. They married in secret without the knowledge of the king’s advisor and mentor. It was an extraordinary marriage.

Q: Sir Henry Stafford is an interesting contrast to so many of the striving, power-hungry men and women in this novel. How much of his thoughts did you base on real life and how much was your own interpretation of his character?

PG: Sir Henry, like so many men and women of his time, has left little or no record of his thoughts, and only scanty records of his actions. I had to look at what we knew about him: his age, his decision not to ride out to battle in any of the many battles of the wars: except when he went out for Lancaster in 1561, and for York a decade later. Therefore I had to consider why a man would have fought in the sixth and the fifteenth battle: but no others; and why a man tied to the house of Lancaster by family and habit would change his mind so completely as to fight for York. That was all I had to go on: as well as my general reading about the feelings of so many men who were forced to take difficult decisions about their private and family hopes and fears at a time of constant challenge.

Q: There are three pivotal women in this novel, Elizabeth Woodville, her daughter, Lady Elizabeth and Margaret Beaufort. Do you think they are able to rise above what was considered acceptable for women’s roles in their time?

PG: I think what these women demonstrate in this novel is the range of responses that were possible for women; and that this range is probably wider than we as readers of the period might generally think. Because the history of the period has been mostly written by men (for two reasons: that until the 20th century almost all historians were men since only men attended universities, and that histories of war seem to attract mostly male historians) we have very scanty records of what women were feeling, thinking and even doing. And those reports we have are often biased against women who seek power. Thus we simply don’t know the extent of the involvement of Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort in the Buckingham rebellion or the Tudor invasion, we can only deduce that they were deeply involved. But we do have very negative views of Elizabeth Woodville as a mother failing to protect her children, as a panic-stricken woman fleeing into sanctuary, and as a hard-hearted manipulator sending her daughters out to the uncle who may have killed her sons. That these views of her are exaggerated and indeed contradictory does not seem to trouble some historians whose view of her is determinedly negative. In contrast, the positive views taken of Margaret Beaufort emphasize her suffering and endurance and not her political skill and manipulation. In this book I suggest that Princess Elizabeth fell in love with King Richard, her uncle. This is based on a letter which was seen by an historian but is now missing, and it would suggest that she also had the courage and passion to try to choose her own life. These are women of exceptional courage and determination, but I think they show that even in a society where women are powerfully repressed both legally and culturally, that there are still women who will find ways to express themselves.

Q: How does history remember Margaret Beaufort? Do you feel that she is dealt with fairly by historians and writers?

PG: There are two main opinions on Margaret Beaufort that have emerged for me from my reading. One, very positive, is based on the Tudor hagiography which sees her as the matriarch of the house and a woman who spent her life in the service of her son. It follows the sermon preached by Archbishop Fisher who stressed her suffering as a young woman, and her very early sense of destiny when she believed that she was advised by the saints to marry Edmund Tudor and thus have a Tudor heir to the Lancaster throne. This view sees her as a divinely inspired matriarch, to a family called by God, and was incorporated into the Tudor history of their own line. The other, more modern view of her, is less admiring of her as a spiritual woman but emphasizes her political ambitions and her powers of manipulation. In this view she is sometimes regarded critically as a woman of excessive ambition and greed and suggests that she dominated the household of her son, and influenced the upbringing of her grandsons.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the next book in the series? Is Lady Elizabeth going to feature prominently?

PG: The next book tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville’s mother who is glimpsed in this novel. She was Jacquetta, daughter of the Count of Luxembourg, and kinswoman to half the royalty of Europe, who was married first to the great Englishman John Duke of Bedford, uncle to Henry VI. Widowed at the age of nineteen she took the extraordinary risk of marrying a gentleman of her household for love, and then carved out a life for herself as Queen Margaret of Anjou's close friend and a Lancaster supporter --- until the day that her daughter Elizabeth Woodville fell in love and married the rival king Edward IV. Of all the little-known but important women of the period, her dramatic story is the most neglected. With her links to Melusina, the founder of the house of Luxembourg and her reputation for making magic, she is a most haunting heroine. The story opens as her uncle, Louis of Luxembourg, captures Joan of Arc and Jacquetta sees, for the first time, the dangers facing a girl who dares to be extraordinary.

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